The Paris summit can be assessed as a rather accomplished attempt to give a new impetus to the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Following the victory of Vladimir Zelensky in the presidential election, changes in a number of key variables occurred within the confusing equation of the Ukrainian crisis. This gave hope for concrete results in resolving the Donbass situation.
At the same time, other variables, located mainly in that part of the equation for which Kiev is responsible, remained unchanged. Supporters of a forceful resolution of the situation in the Southeast of Ukraine retain their influence and are ready to organize noisy protests, which happened on the eve of the Paris summit. The new president’s ability to neutralize their influence on the negotiation process will be an important indicator of the success of the negotiations. At the moment, Vladimir Zelensky is generally managing to cope with this task.
The Paris summit was not a breakthrough in resolving the Ukrainian crisis, but yielded talk about the resumption of a dialogue and the appearance of some kind of goal-setting system. One way or another, in the current situation, any result of the negotiations other than a deafening failure, could be thought of as a step away from the armed confrontation in the Donbass region. The resumption of the negotiation process after a long break provides a sense of hope for positive changes for all of the summit’s participants.
The emergence of insurmountable difficulties in the implementation of the Paris summit will mean a move to freeze the conflict. For various reasons, none of the negotiators is interested in this, but the lack of compromise will not leave them another choice. Of course, except for the resumption of full-scale hostilities.
The lack of progress in further negotiations in the Normandy format will mean new risks and difficulties for the Ukrainian leadership. In the election rhetoric of Vladimir Zelensky, the idea to achieve peace in Donbass occupied an important place. The repetition of mistakes by the Poroshenko administration will affect the rating of the new president, which is already slumping. The crisis of confidence in President Zelensky will add uncertainty and chaos to the political life of Ukraine.
We can say that the most optimal option for everyone was realised in Paris: the parties found points for dialogue and postponed a substantive discussion of problematic subjects until a new meeting of participants in the Normandy format, which will take place in four months in Berlin. The negotiators took a break to “take a closer look” at the new configuration and, if necessary, adjust their strategies. Much will depend on the success of Ukraine in withdrawing troops in the newly selected areas.
Berlin sees in Zelensky a continuator of the wave of populism, marching across the European countries. On the eve of the Ukrainian presidential election, Merkel did not refuse to meet with Petro Poroshenko, even when opinion polls showed his low chances of remaining president for a new term. The publication of Zelensky’s telephone talk with Donald Trump was also unlikely to generate sympathy for the Ukrainian president among the German leadership, although it was unlikely to reveal anything new to Berlin.
Despite the objective fatigue of Paris and especially Berlin regarding the Ukrainian issue, the key European powers will continue to support Kiev economically, but more selectively. Europeans are interested in identifying their own interests in Ukraine, even if sometimes at a symbolic level. Here, France and Germany will have to compete not only with Russia, but also with the United States.
What steps will Russia take if the Ukrainian leadership decides to pursue a tougher policy towards Donbass? The return of Kiev to tough unilateral actions in Donbass will prompt Russia to launch retaliatory and not necessarily symmetrical actions on the part of Russia. First of all, they may relate to issues of gas transit through the territory of Ukraine and measures to support the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The construction of the wall, announced by representatives of the Ukrainian government as a possible measure, will be seen in Moscow and in the unrecognized republics as an unfriendly step, after which it will be extremely difficult to bring back cautious hopes for normalization.
Russia has made further appeals to its European partners, with calls to influence the government in Kiev if possible, but given the low effectiveness of such activity in the past, it is unlikely that they will meet any expectations. The configuration of ramifications revolving around the Ukrainian crisis, with the relations between Russia and the EU today, allows us to separate these areas as a whole without harming Russian-German and Russian-French relations. Major projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, despite being attached to the issue of the gas transit through Ukraine, are generally free from the influence of the Ukrainian crisis.Of course, Russia will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the residents of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The toughening of Kiev’s policy towards the unrecognised republics will strengthen the role of Moscow as a guarantor of the survival of the population of Donbass. It will not be easy for Ukraine to count on its sympathy in the future.